The mighty Friesian! We are celebrating this fairytale-looking breed as our May Breed of the Month on #YourDressage!
Dressage riders who choose Friesians as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as Friesian Heritage Horse & Sporthorse International, Friesian Horse Association of North America, Friesian Horse Society, Inc (FHS), Friesian Sport Horse Registry LLC, and Friesian Sporthorse Association – FSA are all participating organizations
Here, a Region 4 rider shares the story of the horses that weren’t what she was looking for, but were exactly what she needed when her heart ached the most – both Friesian crosses!
By Ingrid Henry
It was love at first sight on the sunny, brisk winter day in Minnesota when I met my first young filly, Elena. I was looking for a young horse, but intending to buy a greenbroke 5-year-old. She was just 15 months old. But she was by Zorro Sport, the gentlemanly, sweet, well-mannered Friesian stallion owned by my trainer Melinda Price. Her dam was a Clydesdale/Thoroughbred mare, so she had full feathers on her lovely bay body. She floated over the ground, and then she breathed in my face. And I just knew. She was mine. I was hers. We were in this together.
Thankfully, we had that bond from the beginning, because I didn’t know what I was getting into training a bossy, opinionated filly who would become a dominant, challenging mare. She was so very safe, so calm and confident. Even the first time I sat astride her (in only a halter and lead rope while she grazed!), she looked up at me as if to say, “I wondered when you were going to sit on me. Everyone else rode their horses,” then went back to grazing. But she always had her own ideas. I’m so thankful I had professional trainers helping us to work through it every time we encountered her resistance or stubbornness, teaching me to find ways to motivate her.
It was a long road teaching her dressage. Circles were boring to her; lateral work meaningless. What perked her up was jumping (though she tired quickly each session) and trail riding (though her first outdoor walks involved lots of balking and hesitancy). We gradually progressed up the levels, mixing in cross-training to keep her happy. We competed at Training, First, and Second Levels, and there was a learning curve there, too. At a horse show, she found her active hind leg at last, but it came with tension and sass and so much energy that I suddenly had to learn to ride this very different mare than the lazy one I had at home. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenge, and I loved spending all weekend with my special girl, whom I had come to realize was my heart horse; my equine soulmate. I decided that whatever the frustration, I wouldn’t ever sell her.
Although she had once been afraid of puddles, stumps, and sticks, she became my ideal trail riding companion. We worked up to riding through a creek, and across an overpass bridge. I would ride her solo on the trails, doing extended trot and canter, shoulder-in and haunches-in, and all the other movements where she had more energy outside the arena. When a turkey or rabbit startled her, she always came back to me. Our trust in each other grew. In our dressage training, I learned to ride with intention instead of emotion, to not allow her to frustrate me, to avoid the battle entirely and instead to laugh when she had her own ideas and simply redirect her. We were training flying changes and half steps, planning to show Third Level and get my USDF Bronze Medal. We even did a bucket list item and went cross country schooling together, including trotting through the water. It seemed there was nothing we couldn’t do together.
And just when we figured each other out, I lost her. I got the dreaded call at work. My beloved mare was sick with a fever and the vet was on the way. It seemed unreal; just the day before, I’d had the best ride ever. I found a trailer ride to the vet clinic for her. At first they thought it was Ehrlichia, a tick borne disease, but she wasn’t responding to antibiotics. Then the vets discovered fluid in her lungs and the diagnosis was now pleural pneumonia. I’ll never forget when they plunged needles the size of a pencil into her lungs to drain the fluid. She stood calmly, without anesthetic, knowing we were trying to help her. She was the model patient; she fought the disease, never those caring for her. She even managed to heal her right lung. But it wasn’t enough. Her body was failing and I made the hard decision to let her go.
She wasn’t even 15. My heart was broken.
I didn’t know who I was without her. We were Ingrid and Elena, Elena and Ingrid. Even so, I wasn’t horseless. I had my older mare, Kaleidoscope, a 24-year-old Holsteiner, now retired, who had been Elena’s best equine friend. And she grieved too. She spent days just lying down a lot. She needed me and I needed her. Through my tears and our quiet grooming sessions in the sunlight as spring finally came, we found a gentle healing in each other. There was a sweetness in our reliance on each other. It was a rough road for her, involving several barn moves, weight loss, even developing Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID). But she is content now, happy with her herd and her stall. We grew closer than ever, though it was clear to me that our bond would never be the same I’d had with Elena, whom I had raised.
One day, I thought I’d visit Blackshire Equestrian Center breeding farm’s new crop of foals. Nothing like young life to cheer you up a bit, I thought. But then I met her, Macaria BEC PF. A black-bay filly out of a Sempatico M mare, by their Friesian stallion Martzen. She just floated over the ground. She stood square and did effortless flying changes at just four weeks old. Such composure and natural balance! A born dancer. And it took no time at all to teach her that coming into a stall meant wither scritches, food, and attention. I had intended to get a full warmblood for my next young horse, but Macaria captured my heart with her movement and her personality. She was an old soul; very mature, and such a quick and willing learner, as if she had always worn a halter. I wasn’t ready for a new heart horse to ride. But I thought I could do this. I could raise a Friesian cross baby and let my heart continue to heal.
Macaria is my dream horse, gorgeous and sweet. She chose me to be her person every bit as much as I chose her, and I couldn’t be more honored. She has only known understanding and kindness, so she is confident and wants to be everyone’s friend. When groomed, she returns the favor, gently and without using her teeth. Recently, she fell asleep in the pasture with her head on my lap. She is teaching me how subtle energy shifts can communicate my intentions for her. She is already my second heart horse and I’m excited for our future! She turns three this year, and soon we will begin our riding journey.
Most people think a heart horse is something you only get once in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one. But I disagree. If you truly open your heart to your horse, truly listen with openness to what your horse needs from you, dare yourself to grow in the ways they ask you to, you can find in yourself the person your horse needs in order to trust you with everything. Then, you can find that special bond again.
My experiences with my two Friesian cross heart horses inspired me to begin a podcast series in which I interview people about their heart horses. Listen to Harmonious Equestrian Connection on Anchor by Spotify!
Ingrid Henry of Harmonious Equestrian Connection helps people develop their relationships with their horses from the ground up, using classical dressage principles to improve the partnership, balance, and connection.